Inside Accounts, Volume I: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, from Sunningdale to the Good Friday Agreement, by Graham Spencer, Manchester University Press, 288 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-1784994181
Inside Accounts, Volume II: The Irish Government and Peace in Northern Ireland, from the Good Friday Agreement to the Fall of Power-Sharing, Manchester University Press, 312 pp, £80, ISBN: 978-1526143907
According to William Faulkner, the past is not dead: it is not even past. In his book A Shared Home Place, Seamus Mallon quotes Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but when faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Fixing the big political split in the Republic of Ireland, a process now almost complete, has taken nearly three generations. Healing the bigger divisions in the smaller society of Northern Ireland may take as long or longer. Sunningdale (1973), the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998) are therefore best seen as connected parts of a process rather than separate, discrete events. That process is its own justification and for now it seems sustainable. But risks remain and final outcomes cannot be guaranteed. Overcoming the hatreds and bitterness of the relatively recent past and putting substance into the concepts of consent, plural allegiances and parity of respect, let alone into that of an agreed Ireland, will take time as well as hard work. The South must now continue to do its share of that work
A singular merit of these two volumes is that they illustrate and confirm that Dublin has generally pursued a reasonable, consistent and, on the whole, moderate line in relation to Northern Ireland over the past fifty years. On its three major aspects, the internal affairs of the North, relations between Dublin and Belfast and the spill-over effects on Dublin-London links, the policy of the Republic has been eminently defensible and positive. Of course, there were hiccups, particularly in the early years of the Troubles, when public opinion in the South, the constraints of our Constitution as then formulated, and consequent fears of adverse court decisions were more important factors in shaping policy decisions. The beginnings of a rethink in the South, of what a different critic called “traditional irredentist anti-partitionism”, can be traced to Donal Barrington’s seminal Tuairim pamphlet of 1958; this helped pave the way for the ground-breaking Lemass-O’Neill meetings of 1965, the fruits of an O’Neill initiative. Dublin’s rationality and consistency, together with that of moderate unionism, stand in contrast to the foolishness, to put it at its mildest, of other major players ‑ physical force republicans, their supporters in the US, extreme unionists, and successive United Kingdom governments, the undependable attention-span of which provides the most compelling rationale for some kind of coming together within the island of Ireland.
Volume I of Inside Accounts deals with the peace process from Sunningdale to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, as seen by eight participating Irish civil servants. Each was interviewed at least three times before their testimony was edited, in question and answer format, into a single text for each. Volume II has a further six such official-level interviews on the lead-up to, and the detailed hammering out of, the Good Friday Agreement, together with interviews in the same format with former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, minister of state Liz O’Donnell (Progressive Democrats) and attorney general David Byrne. The civil servants contributing to the two volumes include three secretaries general of the Department of Foreign Affairs and one from the Department of Justice, as well as other senior officials from Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Taoiseach.
The focus throughout is on texts and contexts, formal and informal talks with opposite numbers and colleagues from Britain and Northern Ireland and with all shades of opinion within the North, the interplay between official and political levels, the congruence and clash of personalities, the mix of factual details with personal observations and judgements, and especially the fascination of concentrated negotiation and the evolution of policy under pressure. From the officials, I found the contributions of Messrs Donlon, Dorr, Lillis, Kirwan and Dalton particularly interesting and thought-provoking; those with a more extended brief or more extensive responsibilities at the time have naturally most to contribute; and, of course, the interview with the taoiseach has a special weight. Throughout, a welcome consistency of overall approach and viewpoint is combined with some differing choices of detail and priorities, and some secondary differences of interpretation. Inevitably, given its structure, there is a certain amount of repetition; the work is therefore probably most valuable as a source book for future research and specialised study rather than as a quick and easy read.
The two volumes together contain almost 500 pages of interview material. Each volume has in addition a chronology; notes on the interviewees; lists of parties, organisations and key documents; and separate introductions, conclusions and bibliographies. The bibliographies are relatively brief and there is no single, consolidated version. There are no footnotes and the index is adequate but not exhaustive. Graham Spencer has been research fellow at Maynooth, visiting fellow at Northumbria University and reader in political conflict at the University of Portsmouth; he is the author/editor of a number of previous studies on Northern Ireland, including most recently and in roughly the same interview format, The British and Peace in Northern Ireland from Cambridge University Press (2015).
It is regrettable that it was not possible to have a contribution from Dermot Nally, assistant secretary in the Department of the Taoiseach from 1973 and secretary to the government, 1980-1993, who worked with ten taoisigh in five different governments. (He died in 2009, before this study began.) He attended almost every meeting of importance in the peace process up to 1993. His facility in drafting, as well as his anticipatory sense, wise counsel, ability to get along with everyone and kindness to junior colleagues were legendary. He gets a fair coverage in the text through the contributions of others (fifteen references in the index), but there is less on his perceptions and on his large contribution to evolving strategies and tactics than I would have thought appropriate.
Graham Spencer’s editing is workmanlike but his wording is occasionally clumsy. For example, in the introduction to, and early chapters of Volume I, he refers more than once to certain views and policies as the “Irish” position, rather than that of the Irish Government, or Dublin. Thus, “Were the Irish talking to the SDLP at this point?” and “Were the SDLP sceptical of the Irish role?” At its most basic, this is potentially misleading and does violence to the position of Northern Irish nationalists, and some unionists. Again, a note in the chronology section of Volume II, dated September 1998, states “Gerry Adams and UUP leader David Trimble lead first talks between unionists and republicans for seventy-five years”. In an academic work, there is no excuse for implying that the only republicans in Ireland are those who support or have supported the “armed struggle”; allowing the IRA and Sinn Féin the exclusive title to republicanism has serious political connotations. Seamus Mallon was deputy first minister to David Trimble from July of 1998. Was Mallon then a monarchist? This is either Sinn Féin language or carelessness. There is also evidence of lack of sufficient attention to detail, perhaps due to publishing deadlines. For example, the introduction to Volume II gets the number of contributors wrong and there are other typos or inaccuracies relating to Eamon Gallagher, Randolph Churchill, etc.
I was particularly interested in Sunningdale, the lead-up to it and its consequences. On this, Sean Donlon and Noel Dorr are authoritative and incisive. Donlon stresses his personal role and is perhaps somewhat inward-looking on the help needed by the SDLP in relation to bureaucratic structures, drafting and the “art of negotiating”. He lists the important elements of the talks as extradition, policing and security co-operation, North/South links, the constitutional position of the North and human rights. He criticises the over-cooking of the Council of Ireland aspects of the negotiation, the lack of appreciation by both Dublin and the SDLP of the weakness of Brian Faulkner’s position and the consequent need for him to be shored up if the negotiation was to succeed. He is even more critical of Harold Wilson; Wilson’s meeting with the chief of staff of the Provisionals, while on a visit to Dublin as leader of the opposition in 1972, is characterised as “deceptive” and “dishonourable”, his reaction to the loyalist strike was supine and his willingness to contemplate a British withdrawal from the North was potentially disastrous.
At the end of his interview, Donlon pays a particularly warm tribute to John Hume. He sees Hume’s persuasiveness and consistency from 1964 as the prime factor in redefining Irish nationalism for the majority on the island, in shaping the perceptions and priorities of the government in Dublin, and in influencing the US towards a more positive role. Donlon claims that Hume also changed the agenda for extremist Irish republicanism by persuading Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin of two things – that they would not achieve their objectives through the use of violence and that they would have to accept the principle of consent. And he cites Hume’s view that if you were able to bring the IRA in from the cold, then there was a reasonable possibility that the loyalists would follow, which was what eventually happened.
Noel Dorr is particularly good on the reasons why Sunningdale failed, as well as in his brief but cogent analysis of Paragraph 5 of the communique. On the former, he admits that the Irish government may have had exaggerated ideas about the Council of Ireland, but he balances this by arguing that extreme loyalism was as much against power-sharing as against the Council. He also lists five other reasons for Sunningdale’s lack of success: first, because the second stage of the Agreement never took place, the degree of consensus reached rested on the level of broad ideas and principle rather than on what could have been, for the unionists, less frightening and more reassuring detail; second, the February 1974 election became in Northern Ireland an over-hasty referendum on the settlement, akin to making a judgement on a new building while it is still surrounded by scaffolding; third, inevitably Wilson was not as deeply committed as Heath to an agreement he had not negotiated; fourth, the effect of the Boland court case was to impede the Irish government from talking up the Agreement to the extent they would have wished at a crucial time; fifth, and not least, the IRA and the loyalists continued their violence, and then you had the loyalist strike.
Both parallel declarations set out in paragraph 5 of the Sunningdale Communique had the intention of reassuring the unionists that consent of a majority would be necessary for any change in the status of Northern Ireland. But there are significant differences between the two declarations. The Irish government did not feel free to formally recognise Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK, so its declaration focused on the majority consent condition necessary for change. The British government declaration was fuller: it declared that it was and would remain their policy to support the wishes of a majority there, that (in accordance with this policy) Northern Ireland’s existing status was as part of the UK, and finally, that it would support a change of status if the Northern Ireland majority chose to become part of a united Ireland.
Neither Donlon nor Dorr refer to the statement of taoiseach Liam Cosgrave, reported in the Sunday Press of December 16th, 1973 that there was no question of the Republic changing its constitution to rescind its claim to Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity. Nor do they mention such views as that of the SDLP’s Hugh Logue around the same time that “The Council of Ireland is the vehicle in which the unionists will be trundled into a United Ireland”. The publicity attendant on opinions of this sort gave powerful ammunition to unionist opponents of Sunningdale and Faulkner – their motto being “Dublin is only a Sunningdale Away”.
Like other civil service contributors, Michael Lillis is prepared on occasion to criticise aspects of Dublin’s position. He believes we could have done more on security co-operation in the immediate run-up to the 1985 Agreement and he even sees merit in the UK’s proposal for a “Five mile no-mans-land” on the border, if only because it broke a mould and would have permitted Dublin a say in policing nationalist areas in the North. (It was rejected out of hand without discussion because it would have permitted the RUC to operate in limited circumstances on our side.) He is particularly good on the help given by Tip O’Neill to put pressure on Reagan to put pressure on Thatcher; his judgement is that without the US, our pressure alone on Thatcher would not have worked. His account of his brief meetings with Adams in the early ’90s, as a private person, at Adams’s request, in parallel with the Hume-Adams discussions, is intriguing.
From Wally Kirwan’s interview I would highlight a number of points. The agenda of the inter-departmental group he was involved with from 1974 shows how close we came to a full breakdown on the island; its contingency plans included reception centres for large numbers of Northern refugees, what to do in the event of repartition or an independent NI, and physical protection of nationalist communities in the North. He also mentions the murder of the British ambassador in 1976 and of Lord Mountbatten in 1979. Kirwan worked with both the New Ireland Forum and the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. He considers the final report of the former as especially useful in that it reassured Northern nationalists that the South was in earnest in “helping to bring peace with justice to an area seen as abandoned since 1925”. His text contains an ambiguous reference to Martin McGuinness, “who we assumed wanted to take the leadership and was going to lead the route”; and a curiously precise claim that part of Sinn Féin’s leverage rested on the fact that by the time of the Good Friday negotiations it had the support of 35-40 per cent of nationalists in the North. It was in the interests of the IRA leadership, but also in those of the British and Irish governments that the IRA should not split in the period prior to the conclusion of the 1998 Agreement, with a rump section prepared to carry on the campaign of violence. Nevertheless, Kirwan believes that the Provisionals were “excessively indulged”, “allowed too much rope” and that the governments “should have stood up to them more”. Like Seamus Mallon, his conviction is that the centrist parties died on the altar of decommissioning, that they were sacrificed to bring in the extremes. Asked about the tension between moral and strategic considerations, he admits he has no direct answer; he can only say that was for others to decide.
Tim Dalton attended most meetings with Sinn Féin/IRA representatives in the years preceding the Good Friday Agreement, as the Republic’s security and justice expert, and later dealt with the implementation problems in this area (decommissioning, prisoner releases and on-the-runs). While he has no time for IRA philosophy or actions, he shows respect for those across the table; they were serious negotiators, on the whole courteous and, as individuals, easy enough to get on with. Like Wally Kirwan, he understood the need for his Sinn Féin interlocutors to buy time, to consult those not present (the “people of substance”), in order to keep the whole movement committed to a successful outcome. Kicking the can down the road also on occasion suited governments; it was easier, for example, to explain the need for prisoner releases to electorates after the Agreement had been signed off rather than before. Dalton is also strong on what in Brussels is called “the table conspiracy”, the willingness of official negotiators to be adventurous, to move somewhat beyond their specific instructions and to justify the overall result to their authorities later.
The final interview with Bertie Ahern is most impressive and it marks a fitting conclusion to the series. The one issue where he appears less than generous and too narrowly focused is his dismissal of the 1985 Agreement as essentially worthless because by the early 1990s none of the principal actors, except the SDLP (and Fine Gael) had a good word to say about it. He finds it difficult to accept that it broke important new ground and that the Good Friday Agreement utilised some of its key concepts and language to advantage. But he explains convincingly how he and Tony Blair, still in opposition but confident they would shortly be in government, freely exchanged ideas and made specific plans about how to get the peace process back on track; and he details his negotiating technique, the need for patience and endurance and not reaching for compromises too early. What was new to me was not Ahern’s ability to reach out to all shades of political opinion – Blair, Trimble, Adams, Paisley – and to form productive relations with them; but his interest and fortitude, on a human level, in maintaining contact with Mrs Paisley after Dr Paisley’s death, his meetings with bereaved families of RUC men to explain prisoner releases etc. On the question of moral versus strategic, his mind is clear. Isolating the extremes and supporting the moderates does not solve the problem: “you have to make peace with your enemies and not your friends”.
In addition to Graham Spencer’s works, the Northern Ireland Troubles have generated many thought-provoking books, most recently Milkman by Anna Burns, (winner of a Mann Booker award and the Orwell Prize for political fiction), Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, Negotiating a Settlement in Northern Ireland by John Coakley and Jennifer Todd and A Shared Home Place by Seamus Mallon, who sadly died some months after its publication. The novel by Burns and the investigation by Keefe into the 1972 killing of Jean McConville both focus on the themes of grief, guilt, conscience, memory and the pressures exerted on traumatised communities and vulnerable individuals. The work of Coakley and Todd, like that of Spencer, builds on interviews, organised in this instance around witness seminars where the participants were senior civil servants and politicians from Dublin, Northern Ireland and the UK.
For me, the most original and valuable of these works is that by Mallon. While it lacks a broad and multifaceted academic approach, this is more than compensated for by the strength of the writer’s commitment to the Northern Irish nationalist community for more than thirty years, his experience in the governance of Northern Ireland and as a senior SDLP leader, and especially by the fixity of his moral and political compass. He, his party and their political mentor, John Hume, had been dedicated for more than fifty years to the principle of peace with justice, and to one version or another of consent, an Irish dimension and parity of esteem. He was politically courageous, not afraid on occasion to go against what is probably majority opinion in the nationalist community of the North. His judgements are subtle and complex, a professional and stubborn optimist, balanced between principle and pragmatism. His particular strength was his feeling for neighbourliness, based on his growing up in, and his emotional attachment to Markethill, a mixed town of unionists and nationalists in Co Armagh; Markethill is not without its problems, but Mallon saw it as an essentially decent place, tolerant and eminently shareable.
I take three points from Mallon’s book which are relevant to the present situation in Ireland, North and South. On violence: the most shocking thing in the book for me is Blair’s comment to Mallon at a Hillsborough dinner, “The trouble with you fellows, Seamus, is that you have no guns.” This is realpolitik to excess. In Mallon’s view, the cynical way in which the Provisionals and Sinn Féin manipulated the decommissioning issue has helped to prolong the toxic effects of thirty years of IRA and other paramilitary violence well beyond his lifetime. On Northern demographics: Mallon cites studies by Paul Nolan which show that Catholics of voting age in the North will probably outnumber Protestants of voting age in the foreseeable future (2021-2023?). But Nolan also points out that the combined nationalist vote only rose by 0.1 per cent between 1998 and 2017; and that consequently, nationalists may find it difficult to break the 40 per cent ceiling, let alone the 50 per cent barrier, in, say, the next decade. While a majority of Northern nationalists are inclined to be bullish on the prospects for movement towards an agreed Ireland in the proximate future, Mallon is radically less so. On a border poll: A precondition for holding a border poll in the North is that the UK’s Northern Secretary is satisfied there may be a majority in favour of Irish unity there (Schedule I, par 2 of the Good Friday Agreement). That precondition is unlikely to be satisfied in the next decade. More importantly, I believe a majority of Irish voters, North and South, nationalists and unionists, are unlikely to favour movement to any form of unity, unless the shape and content of that unity are clear.
In Irish republicanism there exists by now a well-established trajectory for radical movements and parties to proceed from physical force activism through a semi-constitutional stage to full-scale democratic politics. A less-developed, slightly paler version of the same tendency exists in unionism. Movement in this direction should be welcomed in the twenty-first century as wholeheartedly and unreservedly as it was by William T Cosgrave in 1927 – “the best news for five years”. Political violence in the North was never the atavistic regression by primitive warring tribes which is sometimes portrayed. As explained by Noel Dorr – “not some aberration … (but rather) … the expression in extreme form of the emotion of fear on both sides of the community. So the more there was fear in the community, the more emotions rose between both sides, and the more they would tolerate and even support people who gave expression to that emotion in the form of violence.” Such fear fuelled surges in support for Sinn Féin and the IRA in the early 1970s after the botched introduction of internment, followed by Bloody Sunday, and later during and immediately after the hunger strikes. But understanding this is not the same thing as condoning, in the different circumstances of the 2020s, a type of conditional democracy, and conditional adherence to the terms of the peace agreements. I believe a majority in the South are clear on this; I also think that we have reason to be as sceptical about Sinn Féin promises of good behaviour in the future, north and south of the border, as we are about Gerry Adams-IRA-Sinn Féin denials and equivocations regarding the past.
It is possible that the North may again fall into instability, perhaps even into violence, within the next few years. A combination of the effects of Brexit, centennial commemorations, premature steps towards some form of Irish unity, even the calling of a plebiscite on the border or the sensitivity of unionists to Sinn Féin’s success in the South could trigger increased volatility. Consequently, we should debate and decide soon, if we can, where the Irish nationalist majority stands on some big questions outstanding.
Precisely what form of unity does the South, or Irish nationalism in general, favour – a unitary, federal or confederal Ireland? Under what conditions would we support the holding of a border poll? What about the idea of “parallel consent”, already in the Good Friday Agreement in relation to internal Northern Ireland business, for example a minimum level of unionist community consent for constitutional change? If constitutional change in the North comes about, are we prepared to allow a role to the UK government in relation to the unionists analogous to that which the Republic now exercises in relation to Northern nationalists, for at least a temporary period. Any further steps that may be necessary on security, policing, the courts etc. in an agreed Ireland should also be discussed, as should legacy issues, cultural co-operation etc. What all this amounts to is a transportation of the much-debated concept of “consent” into the arena of practical politics in a way compatible with the wishes of a majority of Irish people.
Graham Spencer’s work may be read as an extended tribute to the skill, flexibility, determination, and hard, grinding, detailed work of the Irish civil servants involved; to the physical courage of those who travelled in Northern Ireland in the dark days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, or who lived in the Belfast bunker; and to the political courage of successive Irish political leaders, and of politicians in the United Kingdom and the United States. The success of the peace process is real and substantial, and it is due in no small way to them. But at the heart of that process, and of its success, lies an ethical/political conundrum: how can it be right to throw over those who made correct choices, humane, tolerant, courageous and generous choices, in favour of those who went a different way, simply or at least largely because the latter were more brutal and possessed guns. I have no answer to that puzzle, except to note that Ireland is not the only country which tends to glorify political leaders who make horrific and costly mistakes in their younger days and who gain a reputation for wisdom by spending the rest of their days undoing their early folly.
I am left with three thoughts. The IRA campaign of violence was a failure; it did not achieve any of its major objectives. As long ago as 2005, Edward Kennedy said: “Sinn Féin cannot be a fully functioning democratic party with the albatross of the IRA around its neck.” More than ten years later, the question of Eamonn McCann was: “What do we have now in this little patch of the world that would justify the cruelty, the misery, the pain, the grief and the bereavement that has attended the Troubles?” In other words, could we not have reached something like the present position, imperfect but balanced, frail and uncertain but with promising green seeds of hope, over a similar period of plus or minus thirty years by alternative, exclusively peaceful, means?
John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).